Doing for or Being with?

Iain McGilchrist was not the only speaker at the Young Priest Theologians network meeting (for posts on McGilchrist see this and this), the other was Sam Wells, who is actually a bit of a hero of mine…but that’s by the by.  I found Wells as challenging as I found McGilchrist interesting.

Wells began with this question: what is the greatest problem of human existence?

When we look around the world and see violence, hunger, disease, and suffering, I think we can agree with Wells’ summation that mortality seems the greatest problem. So much of the grand project of humanity today is about overcoming our limitations, our mortality.  Obviously, this has always been a major problem, but in recent decades a shift has taken place.  With advances in science, technology, knowledge and understanding, these limitations no longer seem inevitable – they now appear more like problems to be solved.  There is a greater emphasis in medicine to cure, not simply care for, the sick.  We celebrate overcoming limitations more than anything else whether it be in olympic/paralympic sports or jumping through the sound barrier or ridding nations of diseases.

This is good!  But Wells threw out a challenge for the church.  Whilst the human project at the moment is focussed on ‘doing for’ people, is this really the emphasis of God’s call to us?

What is the greatest human problem wasn’t mortality?  What if it was isolation?

Wells asked us to imagine a few common scenarios, like buying a birthday present for a family member we’ve grown distant from.  We don’t really know what they want or how to close that gap so we end up spending too much on something they probably won’t like.  Their face as they open it tells us we were right and we leave their party frustrated.  Or inviting all the wider family round for the weekend and stressing in the preparation so that we dominate the kitchen, get angsty with those around and end up spending the weekend fussing over dishes and desserts.  We say goodbye lamenting not having actually talked and collapse exhausted.  The issue is that ‘doing for’ in these situations doesn’t mend the relationship or allow for community.  ‘Doing for’ is laudable, but it leaves many things undone.

What is the Christian hope?  Heaven?  What is that?  Not clouds and harps, but being with God.  The whole biblical story is saturated with the central purpose of God with us – Immanuel – the name God took when he came in human form.  Creation was about God making us for relationship; the incarnation was Jesus coming as Immanuel to be with us; the last words of Jesus to his disciples were ‘I am with you always’; and the final words of Revelation (the last book of the Bible) are that a time is coming when God will dwell with us for eternity.

Wells challenged us to think whether the mission of the church is to ‘do for’ – to solve the world’s problems – or to ‘be with’ – to be a community of people who will pay the cost of true relationship with others.  This is a harder call.  ‘Being with’ requires a shaping of our lives around others in a way that ‘doing for’ does not.  We can’t simply provide knowledge, technology or money for others – we need to give time, vulnerability, ourselves – without witholding the rest.  Yet we see the value in the problems we cannot solve….Christians are called to be those who stand with others even in situations that seem to have no solution.

This isn’t a denial of ‘doing for’.  Scripture is clear – love that isn’t practical is no love at all.  Yet it strikes me that fundamental to it is a focus shift off ourselves and onto Jesus.  If we believe that we are creatures, not the Creator, and that Jesus has already secured a future where the ‘problems are solved’ – a time is coming when there will be no more tears, pain, or suffering – then solving the problem is not our job nor our need.  Rather, our mission and call is to show the world that God has come to be one of us and God has done it all, that He is with us in every situation.  We show it by living it – living with God and with others – by not avoiding relationship or the difficult conversations needed to deal with past hurts or the giving up of control so we have time to be with others.

There is a huge challenge here, especially in a commuter town like Loughton – how do you give time to be with others when no one has time to be with you?  Yet we already see the power of it.  Some of the greatest changes I have seen in people’s lives since being in Loughton are amongst those who have come into our Cafe and simply found a place where they are loved and listened to.  In this place a deeper change seems to come than in solving someone’s problem alone.

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2 thoughts on “Doing for or Being with?

  1. Alright dude,
    Thought its about time I had a little say on here- on my phone so will try to be brief.

    2 points
    1 – I broadly agree with the gist of the article which I think highlights a tension for those of us in proper jobs trying to have an active faith. Yes it’s a challenge- have you got any ideas on how to approach it?

    2 not sure about the bit about Jesus having solved suffering so its not our job or need. If we’re called to be like Jesus and that’s what he did- and was a key part of how he was identified- then it’s both?

    • Hey Matt, thanks for the comment. Done thoughts staying with your second point…

      2. When i say Jesus has “solved” suffering isn’t to say we no longer experience any pain or the limitations of our mortality. Rather it is to say that Jesus has done all that is needed to secure the final solution (unfortunate phrase!) – the time when he returns and there is new creation. He has done it all, hence saying “it is finished” on the cross.

      This doesn’t mean we no longer care about suffering or stand idly by telling people they will be alright one day. It means we act, but from a very different perspective. We help because we love and love without action is empty. We don’t help people in order to solve the human problem of mortality, we help because we love. Perhaps one of the biggest shifts this change of perspective brings is that we can no longer make people’s trouble into abstract problems….this moves to your first question…

      1. Yes we are called to be like Jesus, but not in terms of being the saviour. We are called to love like him, but we cannot save like he does – we point people to him by living like what he has done is real. Part of that is having the patience to do seemingly ineffective, small acts because we love people. If we have no guarantee that disease will one day end, then we must end it. So we easily become focused on “the problem of HIV” not the people or person i know suffering with it. We can abstract and depersonalise with it seeming the right thing to do because it promises to help thousands of people, not just the one i know.

      I’m all for helping thousands, but not to the neglect of the few. in a busy working life surrounded by a culture that is time poor and measures value by achievement, possessions and success, to be someone who is willing to give time to loving particular people and doing small acts of kindness in daily life can actually speak a lot. Especially being people who still love and care in situations that we cannot change.

      One practical thing – who is the person in the office no one else has time for? Give them time, love them.

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